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Amazon presses for in-person voting for unionization during a pandemic

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 22, 2021

The packing section at the 640,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center on the West Plains is seen in August. Amazon wants the upcoming unionization election at a warehouse in Alabama to be held in-person during the coronavirus pandemic.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The packing section at the 640,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center on the West Plains is seen in August. Amazon wants the upcoming unionization election at a warehouse in Alabama to be held in-person during the coronavirus pandemic. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Jay Greene Washington Post

SEATTLE – Amazon wants the upcoming unionization election at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse to be held in-person, arguing against National Labor Relations Board guidance to hold mail-in balloting in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The e-commerce giant late Thursday appealed the ruling by an NLRB hearing officer a week ago to allow roughly 6,000 workers to take seven weeks, starting Feb. 8, to cast their ballots by mail to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Amazon argued in one of two filings that the agency’s pandemic-voting policy is flawed, in part because it fails to define what a COVID-19 “outbreak” actually is.

That guidance “reflected assumptions developed comparatively earlier in the pandemic – before scientific understanding of the virus and possible precautions had developed to where it is today,” Amazon says in the filing.

A union spokeswoman declined to comment on the filing. An Amazon spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)The vote, the first unionization effort in the United States by Amazon workers in seven years, is emerging as a major labor battle at one of the country’s largest employers.

Amazon has staunchly fought unionization at its American facilities, even as many of its European warehouse workers are represented by labor groups.

The RWDSU, which filed in November a petition with the NLRB to hold the Amazon unionization vote, will need to win a majority of votes cast in the balloting, not a majority of the bargaining unit itself.

The company has retained Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a top anti-union law firm, and the one it used to successfully fend off a union representation bid by a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Del., warehouse in 2014. It’s also set up an anti-union website – DoItWithoutDues.com – discouraging workers from paying dues and joining the RWDSU.

Amazon’s two filings ask the full board of the NLRB to review the in-person voting ruling and to stay an election until that matter is decided. The board established the mail-in voting guidelines in November after objections emerged in a union election for nurses at a Michigan hospital.

In the Bessemer union battle, holding in-person voting would require the board to send its staff to a region where the spread of the coronavirus is particularly high, Lisa Henderson, the acting regional director of the NLRB’s Atlanta office, wrote in her decision. Moreover, in-person voting could disenfranchise voters who have covid-19 or are concerned about contracting the disease, she wrote.

“The most important factors in my decision are the safety of all election participants and the enfranchisement of all voters,” Henderson wrote. “Both of these factors weigh in favor of a mail ballot election.”

To make its case, Amazon noted that 218 people of the 7,575 employees of Amazon and third parties that work at the facility tested positive for the coronavirus in the two weeks preceding Jan. 7. It argued that a 3% infection rate shouldn’t be considered an outbreak.

Amazon also cited the recent presidential election, where many states held in-person voting to argue against Henderson’s voting decision.

“This result also stands in vivid contrast to the recent, successful efforts by many state governments to expand the choices for how and when individuals can vote in political elections, including through mail ballots,” Amazon argued. “The Board, ironically, has been limiting the right to vote through its mail ballot-only approach for almost every election held since March 2020.”

Amazon has offered to pay for efforts to hold the election safely, including offering a heated tent for voting set up in the Bessemer warehouse’s parking lot, which Henderson rejected because it could be misconstrued as the board accepting benefits from the company.

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